Published: June 10, 2019

How to look at a Dutch still life

The Dutch still life of the XVI-XVII centuries is a kind of intellectual game in which the viewer was asked to unravel certain signs. Today not everyone and not always understands what contemporaries read with ease. Explaining what the objects depicted by the artists mean.

images: Public domain

How to look at a Dutch still life


Jean Calvin taught that everyday things have a hidden meaning, and behind every image, there must be a moral lesson. The objects depicted in the still life, they have many meanings endowed with instructive, religious or other overtones. For example, oysters considered an erotic symbol, and it was obvious to contemporaries: oysters that supposedly stimulated sexual potency, and Venus, the goddess of love, was born from a shell. On the one hand, the oysters hinted at worldly temptations, on the other hand, the open shell signified a soul ready to leave the body, in other words, it promised salvation. There were no strict rules on how to read a still life, of course, and the viewer guessed on the canvas exactly those characters that he wanted to see. In addition, we must not forget that each object was part of the composition and it could be read in different ways - depending on the context and the general message of the still life.

Floral still life

Up until the XVIII century, a bouquet of flowers, as a rule, symbolized frailty, because earthly joys are just as transient as the beauty of a flower. The symbolism of plants is especially complicated and ambiguous, and the book of emblems popular in Europe of the XVI-XVII centuries helped to catch the sense, where explanatory texts accompanied allegorical illustrations and mottos. Flower arrangements were not easy to interpret the same flower had many meanings, sometimes just the opposite. For example, the narcissus denoted narcissism and at the same time, it was considered a symbol of the Mother of God. In still lifes, as a rule, both meanings of the image were preserved, and the viewer was free to choose one of two meanings or to combine them.

Flower arrangements are often supplemented with fruits, small objects, images of animals. These images expressed the main idea of the work, emphasizing the motive of transience, withering, sinfulness of all earthly and imperishable virtues.

How to look at a Dutch still life

Jan Davidsz de Heem. Flowers in a Vase. Between 1606 and 1684.

The State Hermitage Museum

In the picture of Jan Davidsz de Heem, at the base of the vase, the artist depicted the symbols of impermanence, faded and broken flowers, showered petals and dried pea pods. Here is a snail - it is associated with the soul of the sinner. At the centre of the bouquet, we see symbols of modesty and purity of wildflowers, violets and forget-me-nots. They are surrounded by tulips, symbolizing the fading beauty and senseless extravagance (cultivation of tulips in Holland was considered one of the vainest activities and also not cheap); lush roses and poppies, reminiscent of the fragility of life. Two large flowers that have a positive value crown the composition. Blue iris personifies absolution and indicates the possibility of salvation through virtue. The red poppy, which was traditionally associated with sleep and death, because of its location in the bouquet, changed the interpretation: here it means the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Other symbols of salvation are the spikelets of grain, and the butterfly sitting on the stem personifies the immortal soul.

How to look at a Dutch still life

Jan Bauman. Flowers, Fruit and Monkey. First half of XVII century.

Serpukhov Historical and Art Museum

The painting "Flowers, Fruit and Monkey" by Jan Bauman is a good example of the semantic layering and ambiguity of still life and objects on it. At first glance, the combination of plants and animals seems random. In fact, this still life also reminds of the transience of life and the sinfulness of earthly existence. Each item depicted translates a certain idea of a snail and a lizard, in this case, indicate the mortality of the whole earth; a tulip lying near a bowl with fruits symbolizes fast wilt; shells scattered on the table hint at the unreasonable waste of money; and a monkey with a peach indicates original sin and depravity. On the other hand, a fluttering butterfly and the fruits of a bunch of grapes, apples, peaches and pears - speak of the immortality of the soul and the atoning sacrifice of Christ. On another, allegorical level, the fruits, fruits, flowers and animals represented in the picture denote the four elements of the shell and the snail - water; butterfly - air; fruits and flowers - earth; monkey - fire.

Still life of meat stall

How to look at a Dutch still life

Pieter Aertsen. A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms.1551.

North Carolina Museum of Art

The image of a meat stall has traditionally been associated with the idea of ​​physical life, the personification of the elements of the earth, as well as gluttony. In Pieter Aertsen's picture, a table full of dishes occupies almost the entire space. We see many types of meat, slaughtered poultry and butchered carcasses, liver and ham, ham and sausages. These images symbolize immoderation, gluttony and attachment to carnal pleasures. Now we turn our attention to the background. On the left side of the picture in the window opening the Gospel scene of the flight to Egypt placed, which contrasts sharply with the still life in the foreground. The Virgin Mary gives the last slice of bread to a poor girl. Note that the window is located above the dish, where two fish cross the cross (the symbol of the crucifixion) - the symbol of Christianity and Christ. On the right in the back is a tavern. At the table by the fire sits a cheerful company, drinks and eats oysters, which, as we remember, are associated with lust. Next to the table hangs a butchered carcass indicating the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly joys. A butcher in a red shirt dilutes the wine with water. This scene echoes the basic idea of still life and refers to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The scene in the tavern, as well as a butcher shop full of delicacies, speaks of an idle, dissolute life, attachment to earthly pleasures pleasing to the body, but destructive to the soul. In the scene of the flight to Egypt, the characters are almost turned their backs to the viewer: they remove into the depths of the picture, away from the butcher shop. This is a metaphor for escaping from a slutty life full of sensual joys. Rejection of them - one of the ways to save the soul.

Still life with fish

Fish still life is an allegory of the water element. Works of this kind, as well as butchers, were often part of the so-called prima materia cycle and, as a rule, created to decorate palace dining rooms. In the foreground of the painting "Fish Shop" by Frans Snyders, a lot of fish are depicted. There are perches and sturgeons, crucian carps, catfishes, salmons and other seafood. The part is already cut, and the part is waiting for its turn. These images of fish carry no connotation - they glorify the wealth of Flanders.

How to look at a Dutch still life

Frans Snyders. Fish Shop.1616.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Next to the boy, we see a basket with gifts that he received for St. Nicholas Day. Wooden red shoes, tied to a basket, points to that. In addition to sweets, fruits and nuts, there are rods in the basket - as a hint at the "carrot and stick" education. The contents of the basket speak of the joys and sorrows of human life, which are constantly replacing each other. A woman explains to a child that obedient children receive gifts and bad ones - punishment. The boy recoiled in horror: he thought that instead of sweets he would be beaten with rods. On the right, we see a window opening in which you can see the city square. A group of children is standing under the windows and happily greeting a puppet jester on the balcony. Jester - an essential attribute of folk festivities.

Still life with laid table

Serving tables depicted on canvases of Dutch masters in numerous variations, we see bread and cakes, nuts and lemons, sausages and ham, lobsters and crayfish, dishes with oysters, fish or empty shells. You can understand these still lifes depending on the set of objects.

How to look at a Dutch still life

Gerrit Willem Heda. Ham and silverware.1649.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

In the picture of Gerrit Willem Heda we see a dish, a jug, a tall glass goblet and an overturned vase, mustard, ham, a crumpled napkin and a lemon. This is a traditional and favourite set of Kheds. The location of objects and their choice is not accidental. Silverware symbolizes earthly riches and their futility, ham - carnal pleasures, attractive in appearance and sour lemon inside personifies treachery. The extinguished candle indicates frailty and transience of human existence, the mess on the table - the destruction. A tall glass goblet "flute" (in the XVII century such glasses were used as a measuring container with marks) is fragile as a human life, and at the same time symbolizes moderation and the ability of a person to control his impulses. In general, in this still life, as well as in many other "breakfasts," the subject of vanity and the senselessness of earthly pleasures is played out with the help of objects.

How to look at a Dutch still life

Pieter Claesz. Still life with a brazier, herring, oysters and smoking pipe.1624.

Sotheby's/ Private Collection

Most of the depicted objects in the Pieter Claesz still life are erotic symbols. Oysters, pipe, wine, refer to the brief and questionable carnal pleasures. But this is just one way to read a still life. Let's look at these images from a different perspective. So, shells are symbols of the impermanence of the flesh; the tube, with the help of which not only they smoked, but also blew soap bubbles, is a symbol of suddenness of death. A contemporary of Claesz, the Dutch poet Willem Godshalk van Fockenborch, in the poem "My hope is smoke" wrote:

The smoke thus vanish in the air

I find the slightest difference there:

And hope, or smoke my pipe in quite:

The sighing wind, the other fire that died.

The immortality of the soul opposes to the topic of the transience of human existence, and the signs of impermanence are suddenly symbols of salvation. The bread and glass goblet with wine in the background are associated with the body and blood of Jesus and indicate the sacrament of the sacrament. Herring, another symbol of Christ, is reminiscent of fasting and fasting food. And opened oyster shells can change their negative meaning to the exact opposite, denoting a human soul that is separated from the body and is ready to enter into eternal life.

Different levels of interpretation of objects unobtrusively tell the viewer that a person is always free to choose between the spiritual and the eternal and the earthly, transient.

Vanitas still life

The genre, also called "scholastic" still life, was named vanitas - translated from Latin, this means "vanity of vanities", in other words - "memento mori" ("remember that you will die"). This is the most intellectual form of still life, an allegory of the eternity of art, the impermanence of earthly glory and human life.

How to look at a Dutch still life

Jurian van Streck. Vanitas.1670.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The sword and helmet with a luxurious plume in the picture of Jurian van Streck indicate the transience of earthly glory. Hunting horn symbolizes wealth that can not be taken with him into another life. In the "scholastic" still lifes are common images of open books or carelessly lying papers with inscriptions. They not only offer to think about the objects depicted but also allow you to use them for their intended purpose to read the open pages or to perform music recorded in a musical notebook. Van Streck depicted a sketch of the boy's head and the open book: the tragedy of Sophocles "Electra" translated into Dutch. These images indicate that art is eternal. However, the pages of the book are curved, and the drawing is dented. These are signs of the beginning of damage, hinting that even art will not be useful after death. The skull suggests the inevitability of death, but the grain of ears wrapped around it symbolizes the hope of resurrection and eternal life. By the middle of the XVII century, a skull entwined with an ear of corn or evergreen ivy will become an indispensable subject for depicting in vanitas style still life.

  • Vipper B. R. The problem and the development of still life. Moscow, 2005.
  • Zvezdina Yu. N. Emblematics in the world of an ancient still life. To the problem of reading the symbol. Moscow, 1997.
  • Tarasov Yu. A. Dutch still life of the XVII century. Saint Petersburg, 2004.
  • Shcherbacheva M. I. Still life in Dutch painting. Moscow, 1945.
  • Visible image and hidden meaning. Allegories and emblems in the painting of Flanders and Holland of the second half of the XVI - XVII centuries. Catalogue of the exhibition. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow, 2004.

By Arta,  


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